Puerto Rico suddenly a player in soccer
by Embele Awipi
This week, goalkeeper Josh Saunders gets to live every soccer player's dream of playing on his national team's side in a quest to make the World Cup.
However, the former California Golden Bear and Pac-10 player of the year is going a long way from his birthplace of Grants Pass, Oregon to do it.
Saunders is one of a half-dozen American-born players now eligible to play for Puerto Rico, who play a one-off game Wednesday against the Dominican Republic in the CONCACAF first round qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup.
The architect of the new Puerto Rican team is former MLS coach Colin Clarke. In addition to being the national team coach, Clarke coaches the Puerto Rico Islanders, the USL first division side Saunders plays for. Since Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, Puerto Ricans have U.S. citizenship and Americans can get Puerto Rican citizenship.
That loophole has allowed Clarke bring in players off the U.S. national team's radar to build a good side quicker than was possible in the old days when Puerto Rico was one of the region's bottom teams. Chris Armas, arguably Puerto Rico's best player to ever, played five friendly games for the island before switching over and playing 66 games for the United States. Since his time in Puerto Rico is considered non-official games, FIFA allowed Armas to switch nations. Now the rules have worked again to Puerto Rico's advantage.
Last month, the new-look squad swept a pair of friendlies against Bermuda .They were the first Puerto Rico wins in 14 years. They followed that up with a 2-2 tie against Trinidad and Tobago, who made the World Cup 2 years ago.
"We've taken advantage of the FIFA rules and brought in some of the American-based players, but in the future we'd like more local players to represent the team," Clarke explained in an interview on the USL website. "In the T&T game, the starting 11 was a 50-50 split of American and Puerto Rican players. It was a good split."
It is a trade that is overdue. Puerto Rico sends rum and baseball players, the United States provides goalkeeping and midfielders.
It is an ingenious idea that two other U.S. territories should take advantage of.
Guam and American Samoa are at the bottom of FIFA rankings. Neither has ever won a sanctioned FIFA game, with Guam withdrawing from the recent Asian World Cup qualifier. American Samoa holds the unfortunate distinction of the worst ever loss in soccer history: a 31-0 thrashing from Australia in 2001. In both places, the small population and prevalence of other sports have held back the growth of soccer.
As soccer continues to grow in America and a surplus of international caliber players develops, America's success can be spread around to other parts of the globe that need a boost.
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